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HISTORY OF RUSSIA
 
 


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Slavs in Russia: from 1500 BC

The steppes, which form a broad pathway into southern Russia from central Asia, have been occupied by nomads since distant prehistoric times. By contrast the northern forests, in a region covered by an ice cap until the end of the latest glacial period, only become open to human settlement some 10,000 years ago (see Ice Ages).

From about 1500 BC the Slavs, an Indo-European group, settle in the region of Poland and western Russia. Vulnerable to attack along the steppes, they are often dominated by other groups (in particular the Khazars). But they hold their territory until the arrival of Vikings from the north.
 








Vikings in Russia: from the 9th century

Unusually for the Vikings, trade rather than plunder is the main reason for their penetration deep into Russia during the 9th century AD. The rivers of eastern Europe, flowing north and south, make it surprisingly easy for goods to travel between the Baltic and the Black Sea.

One spot is particularly well-favoured as a trading centre. Near Lake Ilmen the headwaters of the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga rivers are close to each other. Respectively they flow into the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Caspian. Goods ferried by water between these important trading regions converge on this area. By the early 9th century Viking tribes known as the Rus have a base on the site of Novgorod.
 









Although they are not Slavs, there is justice in the Rus giving Russia her name. Their development of trade, particularly down the Dnieper (a route which becomes known as Austrvegr, or the 'Great Waterway'), lays the foundation of the Russian nation.

In 882 a Viking leader, Oleg, moves his headquarters down the Dnieper, seizing the town of Kiev. Here, in 911, he negotiates a commercial treaty with the Byzantine empire.
 







A Viking successor of Oleg's in Kiev, two generations later, describes how this first Russian city is the centre of a triangular trade between civilized Byzantium in the south, the steppe lands in the middle, and the wild forests of the north.

In this place 'all goods gather from all parts: gold, clothes, wine, fruits from the Greeks; silver and horses from the Czechs and Hungarians; furs, wax, honey and slaves from the Rus'.
 






The first Russians: 10th - 11th century

The rulers of Kiev in the 10th century are still Vikings. But as they settle and become more prosperous they begin to seem something new and different - Russians. This is particularly true of Vladimir, who is proclaimed prince of all Russia in 980 after capturing Kiev from a rival.

Vladimir's early life is spent in full-blooded pagan style, fighting and wenching (the chronicles credit him with 800 concubines), but in about 988 he takes a step which gives Russia its characteristic identity and brings him personally the halo of a saint. He sends envoys out to discover which is the best religion. Their report persuades him to choose for Russia the Greek Orthodox brand of Christianity.
 









The new religion is rapidly imposed upon the towns under the control of Vladimir and his family. The inhabitants of Novgorod, the most prosperous of these towns apart from Kiev itself, are forcibly baptized in 989.

Vladimir won Kiev in 980 after a fight to the death between himself and various brothers, and the process is repeated after his own death in 1015. His successor, Yaroslav the Wise, is the survivor of five sons of Vladimir. Yaroslav kills the last of them in 1019 and is accepted as grand prince of Kiev.
 






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